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Universal civil code? Men having multiple wives was common practice in ancient India

By Nava Thakuria*  

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated for the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) during a meeting at Bhopal in central India, the nation starts debating aggressively over the ‘one nation one rule’ policy. Modi has sought to argue that two laws in one house should not be accepted and the nationalist leader even linked it with the rights of Muslim women. 
As the State assembly elections are due in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana (need not to talk about the national polls) early next year, Modi’s argument was denounced by the opposition parties questioning the government’s intention. 
Ahead of general elections, the opposition leaders belonging to the Congress, DMK, AIMIM, Janata Dal (United), Rastriya Janata Dal, Bharat Rashtra Samity, Trinamool Congress, etc. have criticised the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party-led alliance for propagating the UCC with an aim to get undue electoral benefits. 
They argued that the UCC will destroy India’s diversity and pluralism, and hence its implementation is not necessary. All India Muslim Personal Law Board strongly opposed the UCC claiming that it was planned only to target the Muslim population of India. Even though the UCC remains a preferred issue for the saffron leaders, many politicians from northeast Indian States of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya (who are even political allies to the ruling BJP) expressed dissatisfaction over the development. 
The Union government in New Delhi is assumed to place the bill in the ongoing monsoon session of the Parliament. Amidst the intriguing debates, Assam government in north-eastern region plans to go ahead with a new law banning polygamy, State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma revealed that his government was planning to introduce a bill in the upcoming State legislative assembly session scheduled for September with an aim to ban the practice. 
Insisting on prohibiting polygamy so that a male irrespective of his religion can be stopped marrying more than one spouse at the same time, the BJP leader revealed that it’s almost zero among the educated families (comprising indigenous Muslims) in the State. Men having multiple wives (definitely not vice versa) was a common practice in ancient India. 
Politicians from Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya, even  allies to the ruling BJP, have expressed dissatisfaction over UCC
From the emperors to kings and landlords to influential individuals all enjoyed the practice (though with guidelines that wives should be treated equally) as it was not prohibited in earlier days. After India’s independence in 1947, voices were raised against the practice in the largest democracy of the globe and then came the Special Marriage Act 1954 and Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which outlawed polygamy for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs (with exceptions to some tribal communities and residents of Goa). 
However, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 allows a Muslim man to marry up to four women at a time. Even the conversion to Islam (from other religions) permitted a man to have more than one wife. The Supreme Court later declared this kind of religious conversion as unconstitutional in 1995. 
Among the Muslim dominated countries, Turkey and Tunisia have already banned the practice of polygamy. Some nations like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh allow polygamy with restrictions. But it's rare where a woman is known to be allowed to endorse more than one spouse. 
One can only mention that the great Indian epic Mahabharata describes a divine lady living with five husbands. Draupadi, princess of Panchal kingdom, married five Pandavas (Yudhisthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nokul and Sahadev) and she used to live with one Pandava for a year with specific arrangements.
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*Senior journalist based in Assam

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